Emocracy: The Losses

The reign of emotions brings losses, too[1]. This post deals with a first – rather obvious – set of losses: As emotions rule our private, professional, and public lives, across all these domains we lose the willingness and ability to live with (and despite of) things we don’t like[2]. The chains of “like” bind us into searching and clinging to what we makes us feel good; and the haters’ paradox makes us pull away from what we dislike (while at the same time, urging us to express our dislikes loud and clear). With this, there’s little room for an environment which contains unpleasant episodes, unwanted encounters, or outright unbearable experiences.

My fifth hypothesis is: The rule of emotions depletes our capabilities to accept and face life circumstances in which we do not feel good about ourselves and the world around us. Again, I’ll look at the three spheres of private, professional, and public lives in turn, focusing on the weakening of duty and discipline, doing one’s job, and cooperation and compromise.

Duty and discipline: For centuries and across cultures, human beings followed the paradigm of sometimes – if not almost all the time – having to live with what they did not like. The psalms sing of our lives as labor and sorrow; Buddha admonished us to realize that life is suffering; 19th century citizens spoke of duties of public and private lives; 20th century ideologies praised the discipline of soldiers or workers. The common thread in all these stories is that, by and large, life is not fun. We run into things that upset us: We get into fights, we fall sick, we grow old, and eventually we’ll all die[3]. This also means that we all have to often do things we dislike: We have to weed our fields, clean our babies’ bottoms, swallow bitter medicines, practice the piano, handle difficult conversations, and fill out our tax declarations. For most of us, none of these things are fun. And the reason we are not running away is that we believe in the benefits of doing our duty or keeping a discipline, with the hope of some reward in this life (or thereafter). However, with the reign of emotions, most people’s willingness to stick with what they don’t like is going down. These days, we quit our jobs, drop our friends or lovers, change the brand of our lipsticks or cars, and delete unwanted comments on social media. What is lost is the beauty of doing what needs to be done – regardless of whether we like it or not.

Doing one’s job: The idea of everybody doing what they’re supposed to be doing is (at least) as old as Plato’s “Republic”, where Socrates claims that “justice is when everyone minds his own business, and refrains from meddling in others’ affairs”[4]. Of course, this logic has its drawbacks, as – when thought to the extreme and extrapolated to world order in general – it locks people into a pre-defined order that can then be used to control what everybody does[5]. However, in the domain of work and business, the principle of a division of labor was (and is) one of the principal prerequisites of specialization and technological progress, which in turn have driven the global increase in living conditions since the 19th century[6]. And – regardless of how much we are driven by purpose or passion – every job has its boring, unglamourous stretches. And there are jobs which (at least from the outside) seem generally boring or unglamourous – and still need to be done. In every single job, there are dishes to wash, dustbins to empty, pus to be cleaned, and corpses to be buried. However, with the reign of emotions, most people’s willingness to just do their jobs is going down. These days, we want the perfect job that makes us get up with enthusiasm every single morning of our work lives, and we want it to be ecstatic every single moment. What is lost is the elegance of doing everything that comes with a job – regardless of whether it excites us or not.

Cooperation and compromise: The public sphere, by definition, is not paradise. It is made up of human beings living together with different needs and wants (or – on a less individualistic note – of a body of people confined in time and space). Since times immemorial, humanity has struggled (and failed) to find stories, structures, and strategies to keep this shared reality together. All these attempts share a conviction that living together entails tradeoffs. In Western thought, Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative or Rosa Luxemburg’s famous words: “Freiheit ist immer Freiheit der Andersdenkenden”, equally emphasize that the public sphere is made up of interdependent rights and duties. Nobody can be part of a society and at the same time expect that all their wishes and whims are catered for all the time. In the interest of living together, we drive on the right (or left) side of the road, pay our purchases with currencies backed up by state banks, and show our passports when we cross a border. Getting to agreements on how the tradeoffs between different interests can be managed is a painful process, and we’ve worked hard to come up with institutions to help us with this[7]. However, with the reign of emotions, most people’s willingness to engage in deliberations about how to best cooperate and which compromises to make is going down. These days, we want the world around us to cater for our wants and needs – from working infrastructure all the way to laws, regulations, and politicians taking into account the specifics of our personal desires. What is lost is the dignity of jointly agreeing on circumstances that make all of us better off in the long run – regardless of whether each single one of us benefits in the short term.

* * *

The rule of emotions taxes our patience. Across all domains of our lives, we’re losing grip on the virtues that enable us to live with what we don’t like. Combined with the demands that we generate because we’ve grown to expect caring relationships, purposeful organisations, and tolerant societies, this threatens our living together with actually creating more unease and unhappiness. How, then, can we make up for these losses without giving up on the benefits we get from living in a world ruled by emotions? How can we balance our desire to live (only) with what we like with the impossibility to ever erase all we dislike?

Stay tuned!

[1] This piece is the sixth chapter of a series of blog posts on emocracy. The opening chapter can be found here and should be read first for context and perspective; the second chapter – on how the success of psychology contributed to the rise of emocracy – is here; the third chapter – on how we’re chained by the “like” button on social media – is here; the fourth chapter – on hate – is here. The fifth chapter dealt with the benefits of the rule of emotions.BACK TO TEXT

[2] This is the second of a few posts addressing the questions: “As emocracy rules: What is gained? What is lost? And for whom?”. The final question – “How do we want to shape our living together now and going forward, given that the age of emocracy seems to be here to stay?” – will then be addressed in later posts.BACK TO TEXT

[3] A thoughtful piece on how all religions and ideologies of the past have been shaped by the conviction that human beings eventually die can be found in Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens” (2011) in the chapter “The Gilgamesh Project”. I happen to be reading this book in parallel to writing these posts, so references are more frequent than they might be if I had objectively researched my sources.BACK TO TEXT

[4] “…τὸ τὰ αὑτοῦ πράττειν καὶ μὴ πολυπραγμονεῖν δικαιοσύνη ἐστί…” (4.433a).BACK TO TEXT

[5] Masterfully dissected by Karl Popper in his timeless work “Die offene Gesellschaft und ihre Feinde” (1945) – a must read for our times, too.BACK TO TEXT

[6] For skeptics (and everyone else), Matt Ridley’s “The Rational Optimist” (2011) is a good read about progress and how our lives are actually getting better.BACK TO TEXT

[7] It is an issue that we’re currently relying on institutions which developed in times when communications and technology worked very differently from how they work today. I wrote more about this challenge a while ago here.BACK TO TEXT

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